Monthly Archives: July 2019

Chemistry summer reading (updated)

This is an update on a previously written blog post about some wider reading for Chemistry. I have added on several new books written in the last few years. The newer books are highlighted in bold. It is good to see a bumper selection of new chemistry popular science books. Some of these are a little harder to categorise as they take a broad sweep of chemistry, history and social issues.

Now that the chemistry exams are over and the long summer stretches ahead why not grab a chemistry book to deepen your knowledge a bit and find out something interesting. I don’t mean read a chemistry A-level text book but something a little different. Chemistry does not seem to get the same range of popular science books that Biology and Physics do, but there are some great books out there. The list contains books I know are in my school library but hopefully people not at Bancroft’s will find some of these books in your local/school/college library. Some of these books are no longer in print although they mostly have been published in the last ten years, so hopefully are not that hard to track down.

Books about Elements.

  • The Elements- a visual exploration of every know atom in the universe: Theodore Gray 2009
  • The Elements- the new guide to the building blocks of our universe: Jack Challoner 2014
  • The elements- a very short introduction: Philip Ball 2004
  • The Periodic Table: A Very Short Introduction: Eric Scerri 2011
  • Nature’s Building blocks An A to Z guide to the Elements: J Emsley 2011
  • The Periodic Table: A Field Guide to the Elements: Paul Parsons 2013
  • Elements of Murder – A history of poison: J Emsley, 2006
  • Periodic Tales: The Curious lives of Elements: Hugh Aldersey-Williams  2012
  • The Periodic Table: A visual guide to the elements:  Tom Jackson 2017
  • Seven Elements That Have Changed The World: Iron, Carbon, Gold, Silver, Uranium, Titanium, Silicon   John Browne   2014
  • The Disappearing Spoon…and other true tales from the Periodic Table Paperback – 28 Jul 2011   by Sam Kean 


The first two in this elements list are big glossy ‘coffee table’ books with lots of oversized pictures and rather less text. They are undeniably attractive though. You will find a lot more text and interesting information in the Emsley and Parson books. Maybe get one with pictures and one with more text and then you get the best of both worlds.

You will find John Emsley appear several times on the list. He is a great writer of popular chemistry books. He writes about every day and unusual chemicals and mixes science with history and good stories. They are always great books that are easy to dip into. The Elements of Murder book just deals with a few highly poisonous elements used for dastardly purposes. If you can find ‘The shocking History of Phosphorus’ by him, do get it. It is a really interesting book about the element with arguably the most interesting history. It is unfortunately no longer in print and I don’t have it my school library.

‘Periodic  tales :The Curious lives of Elements’, ‘The disappearing spoon’  and ‘Seven elements that have changed the earth ’ are a;; newer books that combine the chemistry with a broader sweep of the related history and politics  and have lots of interesting stories.


Books about Molecules

  • Molecules : Peter Atkins 2003
  • Molecules at an exhibition: J Emsley, 1999
  • Vanity, Vitality and Virility- the science behind the products you love to buy: J Emsley 2004
  • Healthy, Wealthy, Sustainable World; J Emsley, 2010
  • H2O – a biography of water; Philip Ball ,2000
  • Oxygen- the molecule that made the world; Nick Lane 2003
  • Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything:  Nick Mann, Theodore Gray 2014
  • Why Does Asparagus Make Your Wee Smell?: And 57 other curious food and drink questions:    Andy Brunning  2016
  • Stuff matters : the strange stories of the marvellous materials that shape our man-made world : Mark Miodownik. 2014

These are books about interesting and common molecules. Again these are mostly popular science books that are easy to dip into. The ‘Molecules’ book by Atkins and ‘Stuff Matters’ are on the recommended reading list for Cambridge University Natural Sciences.

Stuff matters is more a materials science book but a great read with lots of chemistry.

General Chemistry readers

  • Chemistry: A Very Short Introduction; Peter Atkins 2015
  • Physical Chemistry: A Very Short Introduction; Peter Atkins 2014
  • Reactions: The private life of atoms ; Peter Atkins  2013
  • What is Chemistry? ; Peter Atkins 2013
  • The joy of chemistry- The amazing science of Familiar things; Cobb, Fetterolf 2010
  • The Atom: The building block of everything ; Jack Challoner  2018 
  • Reactions: An Illustrated Exploration of Elements, Molecules, and Change in the Universe ; Theodore Gray  2017
  • 50 Chemistry Ideas You Really Need to Know ;  Hayley Birch   2015  
  • Strange Chemistry: The Stories Your Chemistry Teacher Wouldn’t Tell You ; Steven Farmer 2017 
  • Elemental: How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Nearly) Everything : Tim James 2018

This list includes several books by Peter Atkins who is another prolific writer of both popular and academic chemistry books. The book ‘What is Chemistry?’ is quite short but is excellent. Well worth a read. It really gets to the most important features of the subject, and is more than accessible to an A-level student.

History of chemistry Books

  • Mendeleyev’s dream: the quest for elements; P Strathern 2001
  • The big bang – A history of explosives; GI Brown, 1998
  • The Periodic Table. Its story and its significance; EF Scerri- a detailed exploration of the development of the periodic table 2006
  • A tale of 7 elements. Eric Scerri 2013
  • Curious Tales from Chemistry: The Last Alchemist in Paris and Other Episodes  Lars Öhrström  2015

These are books more about the history of the subject than the chemistry but obviously the chemistry features. The ‘Mendeleyev’s dream’ book is actually more about whole history of chemistry rather than just Mendeleyev. ‘The Periodic Table. Its story and its significance’ is an excellent history of the development of the Periodic Table.  I seem to remember it argues that Mendeleyev’s work was based in many other scientists work rather than him being a lone visionary he is sometimes made out to be. Eric Scerri’s book ‘A tale of 7 elements’ is about the search for the seven missing elements such as Hafnium, Francium and Technetium that were 7 gaps in the late 19th century periodic table.

More advanced science Readers

  • Why chemical reactions happen: James Keeler, Peter Worthers 2003
  • Made to Measure: New Materials for the 21st Century by Philip Ball 1999
  • Chemical Structure and Reactivity: Keeler and Worthers: a degree level book
  • Chemistry³: Introducing inorganic, organic and physical chemistry:  first year undergraduate book

These books are definitely not popular science books for a little light reading. The first two books are on the reading list for pre- Natural Sciences at Cambridge. If you are thinking about applying to do Natural sciences at Cambridge (on the physical side) then you ought to read ‘Why chemical reactions happen’. It is an excellent book that that really does explain why reactions happen. It is not an easy book though as it goes beyond A-level and introduces the ideas of Atomic and Molecular orbitals. Bright A-level students will cope though. It is important to read it from the start and read it all through. Don’t write it on your UCAS personal statement if you have not read it though. One of my ex-pupils who had read it was interviewed by Peter Worthers at his Cambridge interview and there were questions. (He got in!)